ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a series of three towering statues stationed outside the clubhouse at Isleworth Golf & Country club that provide mute testimony to an increasingly prevailing mindset regarding the club's signature event.
It's a 15-foot-tall version of the famous rendering of three people, each covering either their eyes, mouth or ears.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
It's entirely apropos, because lately, you'd think the Tavistock Cup was evil incarnate.
|Oliver Wilson wins the stroke-play title and $300,000 to go with it. (Getty Images)|
The unofficial PGA Tour event, where no expense is spared to make it an elite production, has grown over the years into a four-team affair, yet it mostly remains a hit-and-giggle exercise for top players like Woods, Retief Goosen or Ian Poulter, with a few hundred grand of billionaire founder Joe Lewis' money on the line to keep it interesting.
Given the economic climate in the world lately, the mini-tournament has become increasingly demonized, with the vitriol rising to the point that Poulter this week dueled on his Twitter page with a golf journalist who characterized the Tavistock as the worst event in the world.
"Anyone who takes offense at Joe Lewis is a complete muppet," he said. "Do your research. He is one of the most generous people I have ever known."
Sure, Poulter understands the limitation of the format -- it's invitees only -- but the Englishman grew downright animated when the pitched Tavistock criticism was broached after his round on Tuesday.
For instance, the Associated Press has refused to identify the event by its name, referring to it only as a made-for-TV exhibition outside Orlando. The critics in cyberspace are almost too numerous to catalog.
When did it become so wrong to be successful in this country? Lewis, who owns the privately held Tavistock Group, spends his own money to stage one of the most memorable events of the year for the players, so it's not surprising they are fiercely defensive about allegations that it's a rich man's folly.
Poulter's main counterpoint is a good one: Tournament director Andy Odenbach said that in its eight years, the tournament has donated $6.5 million to charity.
"Yeah, if you look at it, it's in a luxury estate, there's some of the best golfers from all over the world that live here and play here, it's a closed-shop deal, and you can’t buy tickets to come and watch the event and some people might take objection to it," Poulter said. "But look what it does for charity. How can you not defend it? If someone hasn’t been here, how can they say it isn’t a great event?"
In another statue outside the clubhouse, there are four huge letters spelling out the shorthand nickname for the event: T-Cup. But it's not everybody's cup of tea, clearly.
"It's not the norm," Poulter said. "It's not supposed to be the norm. Nothing Joe Lewis has ever done is the norm."
If Lewis wants to spoil his players, and throw a party for the folks who live in his real-estate developments, what's wrong with that? It's his money, and he has plenty of it. The guy once lost $1 billion in a weekend during the Bear Stears collapse and barely blinked.
England's Oliver Wilson, who is building a home at Lake Nona, won the stroke-play portion of the event Tuesday and has heard all of the complaints about the Tavistock Cup. Especially that it represents everything that is wrong with golf -- it's rich, white and elitist.
"I totally understand where they're coming from, totally understand," said Wilson, who attended college in the States. "But if you take the time to look into the event and what comes from it, golf's a business at the end of the day, and it's good for everyone involved.
"I think the people that slag the event off probably haven't been to the event and are watching it from afar and see all the extravagance. Obviously we're all aware of what's going on around the world now, and we're not trying to shove it in anyone's faces.
"We're trying to raise some money for charity and that's what people might focus on. They take it the wrong way. Take the positives from it. I think every golf tournament in the world can take some of the positive aspects from this, add it to theirs, to make theirs better and I hope they do."
The whole idea was to make it unique and exclusive.
"This is as laid-back as it gets," said Annika Sorenstam, who played in the event in the past and was on hand to watch on Tuesday.
"There is no other tournament in the world where you can walk and stand in the middle of the fairway with Tiger Woods playing," Wilson said.
Or hear what he's saying. Woods chatted freely with his playing partners and mixed with fans. Players ragged on each other so much, it seemed to dominate the day.
"Golf got in the way of the needling," Woods said.
There's enough cash on the table to make it meaningful -- Wilson took home $300,000 for winning the stroke-play title and being on the winning team -- but not so much that it creates the usual PGA Tour tension.
That was pretty evident when an Isleworth employee asked Darren Clarke if he would like to order a sandwich from the grill to eat at the turn, and the Northern Irishman went off the menu.
"I'd like seven beers and 20 Advil," he said.
Steve Williams, Woods' father famously intolerant caddie, was forced to wear the effeminate team colors of his boss' Albany squad. Fans couldn’t wait to ride him.
"Hey, Stevie, you look good in pink," one fan said.
Williams broke up the crowd when he replied, "If there weren't all these females around, you know what words I'd be giving you."
David Feherty warmed up the crowd during the player introductions, like when it was rail-thin Sean O'Hair's turn to play.
"You used to be able to be a big, fat person and still be good at golf," Feherty said over the P.A. system. "Oh, Clarke's here? Well, look at this guy. He's a sniper's nightmare."
You get none of that at a traditional tour stop. The critical blowback is understandable, but only to a degree. Trust me, my 10-year-old Toyota was the biggest piece of crap in the Isleworth lot, so the proletariat was underrepresented. But these are private clubs, gated communities, their money.
The only valid criticism is the timing. Only a couple of the players are teeing it up this week at the PGA Tour's Transitions Championship outside Tampa, and it could be argued that the Tavistock has siphoned off players who might otherwise have entered. Fair point. But since most of the Tavistock stars are internationals, March is the time when most of them are in Orlando and available, so that's where the event is annually squeezed into the regular-season calendar.
Call it a display of conspicuous consumption, and the bells and whistles are incredible, but it's not like everybody on the grounds is another Gordon Gecko. Attendees have fun, some charities fatten their wallets and fans get to glimpse a side of players they can’t see anywhere else. Yeah, it's criminal.
"This is a tour-sanctioned event with none of the business dynamics -- we don't have a big TV deal, we don't have ticket-sale revenue and we don’t have a big merchandise tent," said Doug McMahon, a Tavistock director. "But we can still be a philanthropic force.
"Are we the biggest? No. But have we made a difference? Yes."